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Idealism, intelligence and inspiration – and much skulduggery : The National Theatre 1971-1976

Actor and theatre director Michael Blakemore is also a wonderful writer on matters theatrical. This is the case whether this be in his one novel, Next Season, published in 1969, or, as here, his factual account of the early beginnings of the National Theatre, published a mere 5 years ago

I came across Next Season in the late 80s, republished by Faber with a very fine introduction by Simon Callow, who recounted it being passed round in plain covers, almost like a banned book, backstage and front of house at the National Theatre, still based at the Old Vic. The reason for its seditious reputation was because it was rumoured that it was a possibly thinly disguised account of some regrettable theatrical tendencies which Blakemore was experiencing and observing at the time of writing.(the book was published in the late 60s), Blakemore, by then a director at the Glasgow Citizens had worked as an actor at the RSC – which is where he initially encountered both Laurence Olivier and Peter Hall, both of whom inevitably figure heavily in Stage Blood. Rumour said that the charismatic, wonderful star actor Ivan Spears was imagined with Olivier in mind, or that at least the imagination, intelligence and power of Spears’ work came from Blakemore’s observation and knowledge of Olivier, whom he clearly much admired. Less welcome would have been the rumour that Tom Chester, the bureaucratic speaking power hungry director, a coming new breed to usurp the actor’s centre stage position, was modelled on Hall, a man of a certain devious reputation for stealing limelight and invention from others

National Theatre South Bank in construction, 1971

In 1971 Blakemore was appointed by Olivier as an Associate Director at the Old Vic based National, then preparing for its new South Bank Home. Although Olivier was at times difficult, devious and autocratic, Blakemore makes clear that his guiding star was the glory of theatre itself, and the building of a company of excellence, a community of artists, and that being part of this was the idea of the arts as a necessary service to society. By 1973 Olivier, in many ways a representation of the ‘Actor Manager’ was replaced as Artistic Director by Peter Hall, a man possibly for far greedier times. Under Hall, the idea of that community of artists began to break down, Hall was interested in star power, and, to be fair, the prospect of far higher remuneration in TV and films was making it harder to keep acting companies together. More equal contracts were being replaced, and the gap between the wages of the leading actors and the spear carriers was dramatically and ostentatiously rising.

Sir Laurence Olivier and Peter Hall

Hall himself of course published his own account of his time at the National, in the Peter Hall Diaries. Blakemore here gives his very different account – he resigned from the National in 1976, – and indeed several other Associates were later – or earlier to strongly criticise Hall.

Of course, theatre lovers and those with some background or history here will be particularly gripped by this wonderfully warm, intelligent account, but it also provides fascinating insights into the kind of high, dramatic boardroom backstabbing events which almost have a Greek Tragedy – and Comedy feel, about them. Perhaps it is the lens of theatre itself which reveals this – so as Blakemore uncovers the workings of the rehearsal room, in his accounts of some of the productions he directed whilst at the National, what might be boring accounts of jockeyings for power and control seem to achieve a more mythic, archetypal painting

I recently re-read Next Season, so I knew that Blakemore would be fascinating in this one – and am now waiting to read Arguments with England, his account of his beginnings in the English theatre. He arrived from his native Australia in 1950, as a student at RADA

I had a clear and very simple view of what I thought theatre was for. It was to bring to the stage productions of such accomplishment and concentrated intent that anyone who saw them would remember them for the rest of their lives. It was their impact rather than the categories to which they happened to belong that mattered.

They could be anything – tragedies or comedies, musicals or one-man shows. Not surprisingly such occasions are a rarity. But they do happen and are perhaps the one good reason why people who should know better persist on in such a clumsy, compromised and often disappointing medium, It’s impossible to legislate for this kind of excellence; all you can do is get the work done as best you can, keep your fingers crossed and trust that once in a while in the life of an institution or an individual, against the odds, it happens. This hardly constitutes a policy and is certainly not a programme, nor is it much use in the daily and arduous demands of running a theatre, but as a thought on hold at the back of one’s mind, a sleeping aspiration, it can warn against wrong turnings and highlight misjudgements

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